Between Sodom and Gerar

A particular tone and mood prevalent in Israel and around the world has been gnawing at me for quite a while now. This past Shabbat I finally put it into (what I hope is) proper perspective.

Over the past two weeks, Jews in synagogues around the world have read two stories about Avraham leaving Israel. In Genesis 12 he went to Egypt, and in chapter 20 to Gerar. Both times he instructed his wife Sarah to pose as his sister, for fear of the locals killing him in order to take her for themselves. In both narratives she was taken by the local king (Pharoah and Avimelech, respectively).

These stories touch upon a debate that goes as far back as our Talmudic Sages, and has continued into modern times among biblical commentators and scholars. How do we relate what appear to be mistakes, even sins by the heroes of the Bible? Do we assume that we lack crucial details, that the forefathers of our heritage would never have displeased the Lord? Or do we see them as fallible human beings, who could err, and (hopefully) learned and grew from their missteps?

While many classical commentators saw Avraham as free of sin in these stories, others did not. The 13th century Spanish exegete RaMBaN (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides) wrote that Avraham committed two sins in Genesis 12. He willingly forfeited his wife to save himself, and he did not trust in God to protect him during the famine that ravaged Canaan sending him to Egypt. RaMBaN even went as far as to attribute the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt hundreds of years later to Divine punishment for Avraham’s sins in chapter 12.

Without analyzing these narratives too deeply (remember, this is not a biblical blog, but rather a perspective of what is happening in the here and now), there are several interesting – and relevant – differences between the two accounts.

In Egypt, Pharoah demanded of Avraham (12:18) “What have you done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” Before Avraham could respond, Pharoah assigned men to escort him and Sarah out of Egypt.

In Gerar, God revealed Himself to Avimelech in a dream to warn him that Sarah was indeed Avraham’s wife (Pharoah received no such revelation). When Avimelech chastised Avraham (20:9) “What have you done to us (as opposed to Pharoah’s “to me”) and how have I wronged you?”  That the text relates in consecutive verses “Avimelech said” without Avraham responding at all, indicates that he expected an answer. When he received none, Avimelech asked “What did you see (Hebrew: ra’ita) that you would do this thing?”

What Avraham “saw” was recorded in the previous chapter. The morning after God brought fire and brimstone onto the once fertile valley of Sodom, Avraham “looked to Sodom and Gomorrah…and he saw (Hebrew: ra’ah) the smoke of the land rose like smoke of a furnace” (Genesis 19:28). Avraham saw God’s destruction of the city that was (and still is) the embodiment of absolute sin and depravation.

Avraham never explained to Pharoah his deception, yet it is reasonable to assume that the rationale was the same that he gave Avimelech (20:11): he believed there was no fear (Hebrew: yir’ah) of God in the place. While in Egypt, Avraham’s assessment may have been correct, in Gerar, he was mistaken. When Avimelech related to his servants God’s message, they “feared” (Hebrew: vayir’u) greatly(20:8).

The Torah is teaching us that people and societies with no fear of God (like Avraham’s Egypt) are to be avoided. There also exist societies and people so far gone that they need to be completely wiped out. (Of course, that is God’s prerogative, not ours. Avraham himself fervently argued with God to spare Sodom).

But the Torah also reminds us that are Gerars and Avimelechs. People and nations who do not follow the God of Avraham, yet still have a proper fear of heaven, and hold themselves and those around them to the highest moral standards.

The placement of this narrative is significant. Soon after Avraham faced a similar danger in Egypt, and immediately after he saw the ramification of the evil in Sodom and Gomorrah, he mistakenly assumed the same about the people of Gerar. He treated all nations as though they were the same. He was mistaken.

We must learn from Avraham’s experience.

We have recently seen a spate of terror attacks in Israel, the latest weapon of choice being cars. We see and hear the propaganda of the Palestinian Authority, our ersatz peace partners, praising the killers and calling for more such attacks. We are exposed daily to a growing radical fundamentalism among so many Muslims worldwide who are threatening the very fabric of civilization.

All the while, more and more people are comfortable placing the blame on the entire Muslim world, calling for sweeping sanctions against all Arabs based on the fact that they are Arabs. We easily see today’s Pharoahs and Sodoms, without stopping to look for the Avimelechs and Gerars in our midst.

This is not to suggest even for a moment that we should ignore the evil and terror that does exist – God Forbid! But by automatically assuming that it is the whole of the Arab world, we make the same mistake as Avraham in Genesis 20. The same mistake that has been made, and continues to be made against Jews in general and Israel in particular.

This week marks 76 years since Kristallnacht, a coordinated Nazi-government sponsored pogrom throughout Germany and Austria on November 9-10, 1938. The pretext that sparked the violence was when a young Polish Jew, 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan shot and killed German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris. As a Jew was guilty of the assassination, it was the Jews who were collectively held responsible and punished.

Today’s BDS movement (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) is no different, nor are the increased incidents of violence against Jews and Jewish owned businesses throughout Europe and other parts of the world. Israel is seen as mistreating the Palestinians and denying them a state, so a Kosher butcher in the middle of who-knows-where is seen as part of that worldwide Jewish conspiracy to keep the Palestinians down, and he is deemed worthy of the collective punishment as part of the Jewish people.

Never mind that Jews in many of the synagogues targeted and businesses destroyed have expressed support for the Palestinian cause and opposition to the current Israeli government’s policies. They are Jews, and therefore guilty by association. (Ironically, at the time of his death, Ernst vom Rath was under investigation by the Gestapo for having expressed anti-Nazi sentiments over the treatment of Jews).

We cannot ignore the rising wave of fanaticism threatening Israel, Jews and the world. We must rise up against it, and deal with it head-on, without mercy.

But we also must retain a hold on our own morality, and not treat others as we continue to be treated. Arabs or Muslims cannot be grouped together as one. No more than all Jews should be, or any other people, nationality or religion.

We must never forget that it is not all Pharoahs and Sodoms out there. The Gerars and the Avimelechs are there too, often hidden, but certainly there.

About the Author
Asher Zeiger grew up (well, sort of) in North Carolina and moved to Israel in 1988. He lives in Modi'in with his wife and two daughters, and works as freelance writer, editor and translator. In his spare time, he tries hard at not taking himself or life too seriously (successfully) and at unwrapping himself from around his daughters' little fingers (not so successfully).